Now recognized one of the best filmmakers to emerge from the Hollywood studio system, Alfred Hitchcock was largely dismissed by the critical establishment during his most fruitful period. Even after the radical critics-turned-filmmakers of the French New Wave suggested there was more to Hitchcock than his gimmicky marketing-genius persona, two decades passed before he was officially canonized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Around the same time, “the master of suspense” was reassessed by the movies themselves. Hitchcock had finessed his own fixations into what were supposed to be anonymous gigs-for-hire; working under far less restrictive conditions, this new generation appropriated those same fixations and re-contextualized them into a new kind of cinema. They ranged from junky, satyric softcore (Adrian Lyne) to formally acrobatic meta-text (Brian De Palma) to somewhere in between (Paul Verhoeven), but all trafficked in provocative desire. Equally liberated in content and beholden to Hollywood convention, they shared a boundary-pushing kick that counteracted—or in De Palma’s case, primed—their sense of déjà vu. Basic Instinct, to choose one example, is ecstatically vapid.
In an era when Fifty Shades of Grey counts as libertine, movies offer little ecstasy and a whole lot of vapidity. Exhibit A: The Girl on the Train. Set in an autumnal, alternate-universe Hudson Valley where the Metro-North plows through backyards of prime real estate, it improbably defangs even the most reliable of Hitchcock’s tics.
A pastiche for the ages, it inserts a Stage Fright unreliable narrator (Emily Blunt) into a Strangers on a Train–Rear Window mash-up (she’s a window-seat peeper) with a Vertigo twist (doppelganger blondes) that moves into Spellbound territory (recovered memories), lifts freely from Shadow of a Doubt, Psycho, and Notorious before going full-on Suspicion with a twist you’ve probably already figured out.
That the movie manages to repurpose material from such great movies and remains so dusty is something of a feat. This kind of stuff should be a breeze: sex plus violence equals profit. But for an audience raised on airport-paperback pulp, only the most absurdly inconceivable twists are enough to justify such a retrograde premise. (The Girl on the Train’s Bechdel score has to be some kind of record.) Gone Girl proved that we’re suckers for sucker punches, but that movie wore its trashiness as a badge of honor. The Girl on the Train is hopelessly humorless, proof that even the most lurid garbage requires craft. And if there’s one thing worse than vapidity, it’s stone-faced obliviousness.
The Girl on the Train. Directed by Tate Taylor. Written by Erin Cressida Wilson. Starring Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson, and Haley Bennett. Opens in Kansas City October 7.